Once there was an opening, an operation: out of which oared the ocean, then oyster and oystercatcher, opal and opal-crowned tanager. From ornateness came the ornate flycatcher and ornate fruit dove. From oil, the oilbird. O is for opus, the Orphean warbler’s octaves, the oratorio of orioles. O for the osprey’s ostentation, the owl and its collection of ossicles. In October’s ochre, the orchard is overgrown with orange and olive, oleander and oxlip. Ovals of dew on the oatgrass. O for obsidian, onyx, ore, for boreholes like inverted obelisks. O for the onion’s concentric O’s, observable only when cut, for the opium oozing from the poppy’s globe only when scored. O for our organs, for the os of the cervix, the double O’s of the ovaries plotted on the body’s plane to mark the origin. O is the orbit that cradles the eye. The oculus opens an O to the sky, where the starry outlines of men float like air bubbles between us and oblivion. Once there were oarfish, opaleyes, olive flounders. Once the oxbows were not overrun with nitrogen. O for the mussels opening in the ocean’s oven. O for the rising ozone, the dropping oxygen, for algae overblooming like an omen or an oracle. O Earth, out-gunned and out-manned. O who holds the void inside itself. O who has made orphans of our hands.


Copyright © 2020 by Claire Wahmanholm. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 2, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“Since becoming a parent, more and more of my time has been spent with children’s books. Their reliance on sonic play—rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance—make many of them a delight to read. They were a way of re-entering the lushness of language in those early months when I was away from my own writing. When I did get back to the page, I kept thinking about alphabet books, especially those featuring animals. They say to children: look, the world is a vast kaleidoscope; look, its creatures are miraculous. But what if we were honest? If we said that koalas will vanish, and zebras, and orangutans, and that we—the authors of these books—are ensuring their vanishing? O is the sound of both praise and dismay. It’s the sound my mouth is always making.”
Claire Wahmanholm